Monday, 19 October 2020

Kobo Libra H20: A short review

I've posted on why I think the Kobo Libra H20 is, considering its hardware features, the best value e-reader. In this post, as I've covered Kobo e-readers before, the short review focuses on general impressions that are specific to the Libra H20:

  • Unlike the flush screen of the Kobo Forma, the Kobo Libra H20's screen is recessed. I prefer the recessed screen as it means one less layer between the reader and the E-Ink layer. Another issue to consider is the screen is slightly darker than the Forma - I would classify the screen's quality as somewhere between the older Aura H20 Edition 2 and the Forma. In other words, the contrast could be better, and the background lighter.  
  • The front light is serviceable at best. It is uneven and has a noticeable shadowing across the right edge. In comparison, the Kindle Paperwhite's white lighting is more even and uniform. The front light issue has been noticed by many users, so it is not just an issue of variation between unit batches.
  • The buttons are slightly softer than the ones used on the Forma. I speculate Kobo received complaints regarding the Forma's buttons and so decided to improve their functionality.
  • Similar to the buttons, Kobo might have re-worked the power button due to negative feedback. In the Forma, the button is located to the right side and feels mushy when pressed. The Libra H20's button, on the other hand, is located - similar to Kobo Aura H20 Edition 2 and the Kobo Aura ONE -  at the back of the device. The larger circular power button also is soft to press.
  • Compared to the Forma, the build quality is a downgrade. Tap the back casing of the device, and you get a hollow noise. The Forma, with the flexible backplane of its Mobius Carta screen, feels more rigid when held.   

Overall, the negatives noted are outweighed by the Libra H20's hardware features that are found with premium e-readers (larger than 6-inches screen, the support of auto-rotation and side buttons). It costs only £30 more than the Paperwhite, but you get a lot more for that amount. The only significant issue that might put-off some users is the passable front light. The lighting does the job of providing illumination, but it might bother those who consider front light quality an essential feature to their reading experience. 

Monday, 5 October 2020

Reflections on the design and production of the Onyx Boox Note Air

Onyx Boox posted an article that details the design and production of the Onyx Boox Note Air. Two interesting points stand out:

(1) Initially, Onyx Boox planned to release the Note Air without a front light. Without the front light, the device would have been lighter and thinner (370g and 4.7mm). In my view, the added front light layer compromises the writing experience - most 10.3 and 13-inches e-readers don't have front lights - so it would have been better if Onyx Boox took the route of reMarkable and worked on optimising the screen for note-taking.  

(2) In the article, Onyx Boox notes the smaller battery capacity is a compromise needed to get the required 'tablet' thinness. Onyx Boox isn't the only vendor to advertise their note-taking devices as 'tablets' - reMarkable also advertise both their first and second-generation devices as a 'digital paper tablet'. Thus, as with tablets, thinness becomes essential even if it means a trade-off for what are viewed as traditionally the virtues of e-readers - long battery life. 

While the reMarkable 2 has the same battery capacity as the Note Air 10.3, it runs on Codex - reMarkable's own in-house Linux-based operating system developed for E-Ink. Nevertheless, it still has a larger battery capacity compared to Kobo and Kindle e-readers due to the extra power needed for note-taking. In comparison, other than the needs of note-taking, the Onyx Boox Note Air runs on Android 10.0. Interestingly, Onyx Boox notes this potential problem and state the following:  
Therefore, some users are concerned that the 3000mAh batteries in the Note Air can only last a few days on one charge.

Actually, Note Air can last at least 4 weeks on standby mode. 

Moreover, the two batteries are parallelly arranged to provide a capacity of 3000mAh in total. Such a structure enables a large space for the batteries and provides them with a higher voltage to speed up the charging. Together with Quick Charge 4.0, you can fully charge Note Air in just a few hours. 

From the passage, it is not clear if the battery life will take a hit when using the Note Air for the main tasks it was built for, i.e. writing notes, sketching and reading. Instead, they merely affirm the device conserves battery in standby mode and charges quickly relative to other devices. I appreciate the front light is an essential feature for many users, so a trade-off with added weight and improved writing texture might be worth it. Trading battery capacity for thinness, on the other hand, is a downside that may repel some users.

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Alternative EMR styluses for Onyx Boox and Boyue e-readers

An upside of most note-taking e-readers using EMR styluses is the relative ease to find alternatives (if you don't like the generic stylus Onyx Boox and Boyue include with their e-readers) or replacements. I've tried Samsung's EMR-based S-Pen on the Likebook Ares Note, and it worked without issue (the rubber-tipped S-Pen felt superior to Boyue's hard-tipped stylus). Wacom - the patent holder of electromagnetic resonance (EMR) technology - also sells styluses that are compatible with Remarkable, Onyx Boox, Boyue, and Supernote devices. Below are two available options:

Both options above are battery-free, have an 0.7 mm tip and 4000 pressure levels. 

Friday, 25 September 2020

Something different from Onyx Boox

Onyx Boox regularly releases new devices, so that it becomes difficult to follow the logic or need for a new iteration. One note-taking e-reader that was announced recently is the Onyx Boox Note Air - an e-reader that is slightly different than anything Onyx Boox released in the past. 

The design of the Onyx Boox Note Air is closer to the Kobo Forma, Libra H20 and Kindle Oasis, with one end of the device wider than the other. The one-sided extra width makes the device more comfortable to hold and rotate for landscape viewing. Onyx, for the first time, also added a built-in G-sensor to enable auto-rotation of the Boox Note Air. Another update is the re-design of the stylus that magnetically attaches to the side of the e-reader. Other Onyx Boox e-readers use a generic EMR stylus that Boyue uses too. 

One worrying aspect of the Boox Note Air is its 3000 mAh battery capacity. In comparison, the Onyx Boox Note 2 has a larger 4300 mAh capacity. As noted in previous posts, Android e-readers consume more battery, and the EMR touch layer also drains the battery quicker with extensive stylus input. The Likebook Ares Note has a similar battery capacity as the Boox Note Air (3300 mAh) and I found that it drained quickly when writing notes and using third-party Android applications.

Overall, the Onyx Boox Note Air is a unique device and is not part of the Note 10.3-inches series. It does offer some upgrades to the Note 2 - a faster processor, DDR4 RAM (although it only has 3GB RAM) and Bluetooth 5.0. At the same time, there are downgrades in comparison to the Note 2 - smaller battery capacity, less RAM, half the storage, single speaker, no fingerprint sensor, no Mobius backplane and heavier weight (despite being called the Boox Note Air!). On balance, as there are more downgrades than upgrades, the Onyx Boox Air costs slightly less than the Note 2. In my view, the biggest issue is the smaller battery capacity, so it will be interesting to follow the opinions of users on the longevity of the battery life. 

Monday, 21 September 2020

An E-Ink tablet optimised for both reading and writing

The problem with note-taking E-Ink devices is that they are optimised either for note-taking or e-reading. Remarkable 2 comes closest to reproducing digitally the pen on paper feel. The screen is slightly recessed, so you get the feeling of directly writing on the surface of the screen. It also uses a CANVAS display that Remarkable developed with E-Ink - the display adds extra surface friction and has a 21ms latency when writing. 

Remarkable claim their device is a 'paper tablet' rather than an e-reader. Nevertheless, Remarkable also highlights that the 'paper tablet' is equally made for reading too:

In our endeavour of creating a tablet for reading, writing and sketching, we have tried almost all types of tablets and display technologies. 

It is here - the reading side - that Remarkable falls short as the e-reader software misses basic features that significantly cripples its use. 

On the other hand, Onyx Boox has the best e-reading software. What is lacking with Onyx Boox e-readers is its note-taking capabilities. The screen of Boox's e-readers, like other e-readers, has a smooth finish that feels unnatural when writing and feels closer to writing on a tablet screen. Added to the slick glass surface, in the case of both the Note 2 and Nova 2, there is a slight gap between the glass layer and E-Ink display. 

Despite being inferior to Remarkable, Onyx Boox's e-readers are still usable for note-taking. It just doesn't have the paper feel and latency that you get with the Remarkable 2. Still, the software for note-taking is capable, and you don't get significant trade-offs between reading and writing (Remarkable 1 and 2 are optimised for note-taking but have significant reading drawbacks).

What is needed is a device that is optimised for both note-taking and reading. I think Remarkable is closest to getting it done as the Remarkable 2's limitations are software related.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Another 'disruptive' e-paper solution?

Once again, we hear of a new e-paper solution. This time TCL has announced the release of a new 'disruptive' e-paper technology - termed as NXTPAPER - that is 65% more energy-efficient than regular LCD displays. TCL was also vague stating new tablet devices will be released "soon" using an NXTPAPER screen.

NXTPAPER is a colour reflective LCD technology that works without a backlight. TCL also claim this technology is an eye-health innovation with eleven eye health-related patents registered. We've seen reflective LCD screens before - the Hisense Q5 uses a monochrome version - so it is not clear how innovative NXTPAPER is. 

Unfortunately, promising e-paper technologies in the past failed. In a technology industry that is dominated by smartphones - sometimes with gimmicky upgrades - e-paper solutions are a genuinely needed innovation. For example, the One Laptop per Child initiative released educational laptops that utilised Pixel Qi screen technology. Pixel Qi was a company that produced energy-efficient and sunlight-readable screens. The screen operated in dual-mode in which you could completely turn off the backlight for better outdoor readability. 

It is justifiable to be sceptical if we will see a device released with NXTPAPER technology. We've had e-paper technologies in the past that promised a lot but disappeared, e.g. Mirasol and Liquavista. More recently, CLEARink announced partnerships to produce devices using their reflective low-power displays targetted at education, but nothing has been released. 

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Why doesn't Kobo implement Tolino's cloud hosting service?

Rakuten owns both Kobo and Tolino. Tolino, since being acquired by Rakuten, sells e-readers that are identical in terms of hardware with Kobo. Thus, for example, Tolino Vision 5 matches the Kobo Libra H20 and Tolino Epos 2 the Kobo Forma. Software, however, differs between Kobo and Tolino.

One software aspect that Tolino excels at is support for wireless management of e-book libraries and the syncing between devices of personal documents. The Tolino Cloud allows the user to upload e-books to be synced between a Tolino e-reader and application. It is also possible to put e-books and PDF documents into categories and have the categories synced too. It is a great feature that even exceeds the support that Amazon offers for personal documents. 

I don't know why Kobo doesn't implement the Tolino cloud feature - together with public library support the extensive support of wireless management of e-book libraries would significantly enhance the reading experience.